Click here to read the summary. Here’s an excerpt:
Fallowing test project allocated CRD funds
In 2017, the Grand Valley Water Users Associa on (GVWUA) conducted a temporary agricultural fallowing program to save 3,200 acre feet of conserved consumptove use normally applied to crops. It was an experiment in water banking — to see how a program to send saved water to bolster Lake Powell might work.
GVWUA is extending the program to the 2018 growing season and received a $50,000 contribu on from the Colorado River District Board of Directors toward the program’s $1 million budget.
Mark Harris, GVWUA General Manager, told the Board that a second year is needed to con nue learning the lessons of fallowing and to broaden the knowledge of it among water users who are watching how this program might work for them.
Harris said that the Drought Contingency Plans (DCP) being developed by the Upper Division states and the Lower Division states to address low levels at Lakes Powell and Mead have put a “clearer focus” on demand management, which means reduced use by agricultural and municipal water users.
“The implications for the Colorado River District, its cons tuents and the GVWUA is that they will be majorly impacted” if demand management becomes necessary, Harris said. “We don’t need to do this for the Lower Basin’s benefit, we need to do this for our own benefit.”
Harris said that if West Slope interests don’t try to come up with a plan for how demand management might work, “others will be making those plans for us.” He said it was important to figure out how irrigators could par cipate in such a plan “in a way that does not ravage agriculture and does not ravage the West Slope.”
He said the 2018 program will keep the conversa ons about these issues moving forward and will advance the learning in economics, agronomics and the political implications.
In 1922, Federal and State representatives met for the Colorado River Compact Commission in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Among the attendees were Arthur P. Davis, Director of Reclamation Service, and Herbert Hoover, who at the time, was the Secretary of Commerce. Photo taken November 24, 1922. USBR photo.
Upper Basin States vs. Lower Basin circa 1925 via CSU Water Resources Archives
President Hoover at the signing of the Colorado River Compact.
Nearly the full length of Lake Powell on the Colorado River in southern Utah and northern Arizona is visible in this photograph shot by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, on Sept. 6, 2016. The view is toward the southwest. Water flow is from the lower right toward the top. (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)
Glen Canyon Dam June 2013 — Photo / Brad Udall
Glen Canyon Dam
Glen Canyon Dam discharge via Tom Smart
From the Getches-Wilkinson Center (Lawrence J. MacDonnell and Anne J. Castle). Click through and read the whole paper. Here’s an excerpt:
To achieve the intended benefit to the Colorado River System, the Upper Basin, and the State of Colorado in particular, the Compact security water must actually make its way to Lake Powell. That is, the water must be moved from its existing place of use or storage and reach Lake Powell when necessary without being diminished by other water users. Absent relatively specialized circumstances, most conserved consumptive use water will require some form of administrative “shepherding” to reach the state line and Lake Powell. Water shepherding here refers to the delivery of a specified volume of conserved consumptive use water from its original place of storage or use to a downstream location without diminishment by other users.
A recent report on Alternative Transfer Methods (ATMs) addresses the issue of Colorado River Compact security and concludes that the ability to shepherd conserved or changed water to Lake Powell is essential. This report reflects the consensus opinion of many knowledgeable water users in Colorado. But existing water law in the Upper Basin states, including in Colorado, presents challenges for protecting Compact security water from diversion and use by others.
This paper explains the basis for the concern about storage levels in Lake Powell and, focusing on Colorado, discusses some of the legal and policy issues involved with moving Compact security water to the reservoir. It offers recommendations for revisions to Colorado law. It considers interstate issues and the management of Compact security water once it reaches Lake Powell. The Technical Appendix provides a more comprehensive discussion of the legal and policy issues.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Lori Kuczmanski):
UNITED STATES AND MEXICO CONCLUDE COLORADO RIVER AGREEMENT
Officials with the International Boundary and Water Commission, United States and Mexico, today announced the conclusion of a new Colorado River agreement, Minute 323, “Extension of Cooperative Measures and Adoption of a Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan in the Colorado River Basin.” Commission officials signed the Minute on September 21 in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua and both governments approved it on September 27. The Minute’s entry into force was announced during a ceremony held at the Water Education Foundation’s Colorado River Symposium in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Minute follows more than two years of negotiations among federal and state authorities from both countries, taking into consideration recommendations from the works groups, which included water users, scientists, academics, and nongovernmental organizations.
The agreement, which will remain in effect through 2026, extends or replaces key elements of Minute 319, a previous agreement that expires at the end of 2017. Minute 323 contains the following provisions:
Allows Mexico to defer delivery of a portion of its Colorado River allotment in the event of potential emergencies, such as earthquakes, or as a result of water conservation projects in Mexico. This water, known as Mexico’s Water Reserve, will be available for subsequent delivery to Mexico as determined through its planning processes. This gives Mexico greater flexibility in how it manages its Colorado River allotment while also boosting Lake Mead elevation to the benefit of all users.
Provides additional quantities of Colorado River water to Mexico during certain high elevation reservoir conditions at Lake Mead when additional water is available to users in the United States, providing benefits to both countries.
Establishes proactive basin operations during certain low elevation reservoir conditions at Lake Mead by applying water delivery reductions in order to deter more severe reductions in the future, giving certainty in both countries’ operations when these conditions occur.
Establishes a Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan so that, should a Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan be put into effect in the United States, then Mexico will also undertake water savings in parity with U.S. savings. These savings will be recoverable when reservoir conditions improve.
Implements measures to address salinity impacts stemming from the joint cooperative actions, in conformance with the provisions of Minute 242, entitled, “Permanent and Definitive Solution to the International Problem of the Salinity of the Colorado River,” dated August 30, 1973.
Identifies measures to address daily flow variability in Colorado River water deliveries to Mexico.
Through a cooperative effort among the Governments of the United State and Mexico and nongovernmental organizations, provides water for the environment and funding for environmental monitoring and habitat restoration.
Provides greater U.S. investment in water infrastructure and environmental projects in Mexico than Minute 319 in order to modernize and improve Irrigation District 014 in the Mexicali Valley in areas that wish to participate. This will generate additional volumes of water that will be shared between both countries and the environment, in accordance with the Minute’s provisions.
Notes the ongoing efforts of the binational All-American Canal Turnout Project Work Group to examine resources associated with a potential binational connection between the All-American Canal in the United States and Mexico’s Colorado River Tijuana Aqueduct Pump Station PB 0.
“Minute 323 is the result of many rounds of technical discussions involving a broad group of stakeholders from both countries. This agreement puts us on a path of cooperation rather than conflict as we work with Mexico to address the Colorado River Basin’s many challenges,” said U.S. Commissioner Edward Drusina of the International Boundary and Water Commission.
Mexican Commissioner Roberto Salmon said, “This agreement provides certainty for water operations in both countries and mainly establishes a planning tool that allows Mexico to define the most suitable actions for managing its Colorado River waters allotted by the 1944 Water Treaty.”
Joining the Commissioners at the ceremony were David Bernhardt, United States Deputy Secretary of the Interior; Thomas Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources; Hillary Quam, Border Affairs Coordinator, U.S. Department of State Office of Mexican Affairs; and, from Mexico, Director General for North America Mauricio Ibarra of the Ministry of Foreign Relations.
The International Boundary and Water Commission, United States and Mexico, is responsible for applying the boundary and water treaties between the two countries. Under the 1944 Water Treaty, Mexico is allotted 1.5 million acre-feet (1850 million cubic meters) per year of water from the Colorado River
Minute 323 Agreement boosts water security for Colorado River water users, continues Delta restoration
(September 27, 2017) – Today, policymakers, water agencies, and conservation organizations from the United States and Mexico gathered to confirm the signing of Minute 323, an addendum to the 1944 Water Treaty between the United States and Mexico. The successful negotiation and signing of this agreement demonstrates the power of collaboration and cooperation between the United States and Mexico governments, and supported by the Raise the River coalition of non-profit organizations, to achieve progress on water security for Colorado River water users.
Raise the River Coalition’s public statement of support for Minute 323:
We applaud the leadership and vision of water managers and state and federal officials in United States and Mexico in adopting the Minute 323 Agreement to provide for a more secure water future for all Colorado River water users, and support continued restoration of the Colorado River Delta.
This new binational water sharing agreement shows the best of what collaboration can do, improving the reliability of the Colorado River water supply for everyone who uses it”. –Jennifer Pitt, Raise the River spokesperson and Colorado River Project Director, National Audubon Society
Officially titled “Extension of Cooperative Measures and Adoption of a Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan in the Colorado River Basin”, Minute 323 commits the United States and Mexico to work together to address potential Colorado River water shortages and to meet new water conservation and storage objectives. It represents the joint efforts of local, state, and the federal governments of both countries to set a course for a more secure water future for the more than 36 million people who rely on the Colorado River in the United States and Mexico.
“This is an exciting day for both countries,” said Osvel Hinojosa, Water and Wetlands Program Director at Pronatura Noroeste, a Mexican non-profit conservation organization. “Especially for those of us who have worked in the delta for decades.”
The Colorado River is one of the most critical sources of water in the West, supplying water to 36 million people and 5.5 million acres of agricultural land in seven states in the U.S. and two states in Mexico. More than 17 years of drought have diminished the reliability of the Colorado River water supply, putting an enormous population and economy at risk of disruptive water shortages. Proactive investments in water conservation, paired with agreements among Colorado River water users about how to share when the water supply is limited, will create the certainty needed to ensure that the region’s economies continue to thrive.
As the Colorado River is shared by both the United States and Mexico, it is subject to various binational agreements extending back to the 1944 Water Treaty for the Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande.
The International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) and its Mexican counterpart (CILA) are the U.S. and Mexican federal agencies that negotiate and implement binational water treaties and water allocations. In 2012, the IBWC and CILA successfully negotiated Minute 319, an agreement that helped the two countries better implement the 1944 U.S.-Mexico Water Treaty (these types of supplementary treaties agreements are referred to as ‘Minutes’). The result of this extraordinary binational collaboration, Minute 319 provided multiple benefits for water users on both sides of the border. It broadly provided for the United States and Mexico to share surpluses in times of plenty and reductions in times of drought and provided for water flows for the environment. The agreement also served to recognize the Colorado River Delta as a place of ecological significance for both countries.
Minute 319 concludes on December 31, 2017. Its successor agreement, Minute 323, promotes a more secure water future while scaling up ongoing environmental restoration projects in the Delta.
Specifically, Minute 323:
Provides for Mexico to continue to store its water in Lake Mead, helping to keep reservoir levels high enough to avoid triggering dramatic cuts to Colorado River water users.
Includes an agreement between both the United States and Mexico for voluntary water cutbacks in times of droughts that further staves off triggering a shortage declaration. Should a shortage be declared, these new commitments will slow progress towards even larger water shortages.
Commits US water managers to invest $31.5M in water efficiency projects in Mexico that will result in savings of more than 200,000 acre-feet of water. In return, the U.S. entities will receive a one-time water exchange, and over the long term, Mexico will benefit by generating additional water from these conservation programs and improved infrastructure.
Obliges both the United States and Mexico to each provide water and funding for continued habitat restoration and scientific monitoring in the Colorado River Delta through 2026, with Raise the River contributing matching amounts.
“We have worked closely with the governments of Mexico and the United States to demonstrate the Colorado River Delta’s tremendous resilience,” states Hinojosa. “Through a combination of limited water deliveries and on-the-ground work to restore natural habitat, native vegetation is sustaining a great diversity of life in these sites and there has been a renewal of the community relationships and engagement that promote long-term stewardship of the river.”
Raise the River has been a leading advocate of – and active participant in – the negotiation and drafting of Minute 323 to support continued cooperative Colorado River management between Mexico and the United States.
“Minute 323 recommits the United States and Mexico in their successful partnership with NGOs to restore the Colorado River in its long-desiccated delta; this is a big win for people and for nature,” says Pitt.
Raise the River’s successful habitat restoration under Minute 319 helped lay the foundation for Minute 323. Between 2013 and 2017 Raise the River provided active management of restoration sites, including base flows – smaller, periodic releases of water – to restore over 1,000 acres of riparian habitat along the river’s main channel, where more than 230,000 native cottonwoods and willow trees were planted. Raise the River was also an active participant in the scientific monitoring of the results of these environmental water flows.
In addition to these restoration results, Raise the River established a water trust in Mexico that permanently acquired water rights from voluntary sellers in the Mexicali Valley to support their commitments. This was funded by raising more than $10M for restoration and water acquisition from US and Mexico foundations, corporations, federal agencies, and individuals.
Raise the River engaged over 9,800 local residents, school children, and volunteers from around the world in on-site restoration work and environmental education programs, as well as created more than 140 jobs in 2016 alone, related to completing the restoration work.
“Minute 323 represents a global model for managing shared watersheds in response to declining water supplies or long-term drought,” explains Pitt. “It also sets a standard of international cooperative management for countries working together to achieve mutually desired outcomes both for water users and for the environment.”
Raise the River’s primary goal is to bring water and life back to the Colorado River Delta, and in doing so, create a model for future trans-national river restoration efforts throughout the world. In meeting our goal, we will rebuild the habitats that support local communities and wildlife.
Officials from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border on Wednesday signed a new water pact that brings Mexico in as a full partner on the Colorado River and could boost Lake Mead.
The historic agreement, known as Minute 323 to the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944, spells out how much Mexico would have to reduce its river use in the event of a shortage on the Colorado and how much extra water the nation would get in a surplus.
It also opens the door to more cross-border cooperation on water efficiency projects — including some paid for by the Southern Nevada Water Authority — that could help slow the declining water level in Lake Mead.
To that end, Mexico has agreed to a series of voluntary reductions in its Colorado River use to prop up the reservoir east of Las Vegas and stave off more severe mandatory cuts.
Nevada, Arizona and California have agreed in principle to similar voluntary cuts as part of a so-called Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan. Water managers hope the three states will finalize that plan sometime next year.
The treaty amendment was signed by representatives from the International Boundary and Water Commission of the United States and Mexico during a Sept. 21 meeting in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. It took effect Wednesday, after the governments of the two countries approved it.
The treaty amendment also sets aside some river water and funding to support environmental restoration work south of the border, where the Colorado River Delta has been left dry by upstream diversions to farms and cities in the U.S. and Mexico. Aside from a few isolated floods, the river stopped emptying into the Gulf of California in the 1960s with the construction of Glen Canyon Dam and the creation of Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border.
The new agreement extends and expands upon a 2012 deal between the two countries that allowed Mexico to store some of its unused river water in Lake Mead. That pact, known as Minute 319, was due to expire at the end of the year.
Under Minute 323, the water authority, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and water agencies in Arizona and California will provide up to $31.5 million for water efficiency improvements in Mexico through 2026. In return, the contributing agencies would share as much as 229,100 acre-feet of Colorado River water, which is almost enough to supply the entire Las Vegas Valley for one year.
Mexico is expected to use the money to line canals, repair pipes, curb runoff from farm fields and make other water-saving improvements, mostly to its thirsty agricultural sector.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority will get 27,275 acre-feet of water for its initial $3.75 million investment south of the border.
If additional projects are identified after the first round of work in Mexico is done, the authority would chip in up to $3.75 million more in exchange for another 27,275 acre-feet from the river.
One acre-foot of water will supply two average valley homes for just over a year. About 90 percent of the valley’s water supply comes from the Colorado by way of Lake Mead.
The signing of the agreement in Santa Fe, N.M., was led by the International Boundary and Water Commission. The agency is responsible for overseeing water treaties between the United States and Mexico and is composed of representatives from both countries…
Several water agencies in California, Nevada and Arizona have anticipated the agreement for weeks and were optimistic the conservation efforts aimed at Mexico would ultimately lead to more secure water supplies for residents and farmers who rely on Lake Mead and the Colorado River.
Some of the conservation efforts in Mexico funded by the United States would include relining leaky canals, improving water pump systems and using more advanced runoff capture systems that allow water to be reclaimed and stored, according to officials familiar with the agreement.
Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger, who attended the signing in New Mexico, said in a statement that the agreement was critical for long-term sustainability…
Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said that the river is already close to a critical shortage and that the agreement helps all parties navigate the effects of climate change on the river’s future.
The commission said officials from the two nations signed the agreement in a ceremony in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on Wednesday. Under the deal, the U.S. government and Southwestern water users will invest up to $31.5 million in water delivery systems and farm efficiency upgrades south of the border.
In exchange, Mexico will parcel out a portion of its river allotment to various U.S. water agencies over nine years and will reduce the risk of shortages for all of the Southwest by storing some of its water in Lake Mead near Las Vegas.
“This agreement puts us on a path of cooperation rather than conflict as we work with Mexico to address the Colorado River Basin’s many challenges,” U.S. Commissioner Edward Drusina said in a statement.
After the deal’s signing, he added that it’s “not necessarily the complete fix,” given the region’s long-term drought, but is a “monumental achievement in collaboration.”
Water certainty during drought
The deal “provides certainty for water operations in both countries,” Mexican Commissioner Roberto Salmon said, and allows Mexico to better plan its water use.
A 2007 rule adopted by the states allows the federal government to restrict some of Arizona’s water whenever Lake Mead’s elevation drops below 1,075 feet above sea level to start a year.
That reservoir had threatened to drop that low before a healthy snowfall in the Rocky Mountains last winter raised levels, but officials project there’s still about a 1-in-3 chance it could happen by 2019.
Here’s the release from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (Bob Muir/Armando Acuña):
METROPOLITAN GENERAL MANAGER’S STATEMENT REGARDING BINATIONAL AGREEMENT ON COLORADO RIVER DELIVERIES, STORAGE
Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, issued the following statement regarding the conclusion of Minute 323, the new binational water agreement between the United States and Mexico addressing Mexico’s Colorado River deliveries and storage through 2026:
“Today’s milestone continues the spirit of cooperation and collaboration forged among users of the Colorado River in both the United States and Mexico. This agreement carries on and augments the progress made under Minute 319 and recognizes that management of the Colorado River is most effective when the two countries jointly manage the river’s available resources.
“Under the measures announced today, Metropolitan and the Imperial Irrigation District once again will join with agencies in Arizona and Nevada to provide critical funding for conservation projects in Mexico that will benefit both countries for the next decade. In exchange, the funding agencies will receive a portion of the water conserved that will be stored in Lake Mead to help meet future water supply needs, increase lake levels and help address long-term drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin.”
With an eye to long-term, binational cooperation and to managing a more stable Colorado River System, representatives of the United States, Mexico and the Colorado River Basin States of the U.S. on Wednesday celebrated the “entry into force” of an agreement deemed essential to the System’s future.
The American signing, conducted at an “entry into force” ceremony in Santa Fe, N.M., applies the final flourish to the intensely negotiated agreement known as “Minute 323.”
“The State of Arizona appreciates the efforts of the United States and Mexico to continue binational cooperation on long-term water management,” said Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
Buschatzke participated in the Santa Fe ceremony and played a central role in the portions of the complex negotiations that were conducted among the U.S. Lower Basin participant-states.
“This agreement provides substantial benefits to Arizona, particularly regarding opportunities for augmenting existing water supplies, which is a top priority for Governor Ducey,” he said.
“In addition to the diligent efforts of the Commissioners, we’d also like to acknowledge the hard work and commitment of all the parties involved.”
The implications of the agreement for helping stabilize and augment Arizona’s water supplies are significant.
Officially, Minute 323 is the “Extension of Cooperative Measures and Adoption of a Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan in the Colorado River Basin.” It is an implementing agreement for the 1944 United States-Mexico Treaty on Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande.
On the U.S. side, Minute 323 was negotiated among representatives of the U.S. International Boundary and Waters Commission (IBWC), the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and the seven Colorado River Basin States, including Arizona, which was represented by Director Buschatzke.
The Minute 323 entry establishes a program of joint cooperative actions to improve Colorado River water management through 2026.
Like Minute 319, the new Minute 323 provides for the U.S. and Mexico to share proportionately in Lower Basin shortage and surplus, and allows Mexico to create water savings in the Colorado River System in the U.S.
Also like Minute 319, the updated agreement opens up opportunities for U.S. water users to fund conservation programs in Mexico, which in turn create “Intentionally Created Surplus,” or ICS, in Lake Mead, which benefits all of Lake Mead’s 35-million-plus water users in the Southwest.
The new agreement’s most important features, many of which are carried over from Minute 319, include:
Allowing Mexico to defer delivery of a portion of its Colorado River allotment in the event of potential emergencies, such as earthquakes, or as a result of water conservation projects in Mexico.
This gives Mexico greater flexibility in how it manages its Colorado River allotment while also boosting Lake Mead elevation to the benefit of all users.
Providing additional Colorado River water to Mexico during certain high elevation reservoir conditions at Lake Mead when additional water is available to users in the United States.
Establishing a Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan so that, should a Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan be put into effect in the United States, Mexico will also undertake water savings in parity with U.S. savings. The Minute stipulates that the savings will be recoverable when reservoir conditions improve.
Providing for U.S. investment in water infrastructure and environmental projects in Mexico – investments that provide initial water benefits to the U.S. agencies while generating water efficiencies for Mexico in the long term.
New features that are unique to Minute 323 include the extension to 2026; creation of the Binational Water Scarcity Contingency Plan; measures addressing salinity; measures addressing daily flow variability; and, providing water for the environment and funding for environmental monitoring and habitat restoration.
Speaking on behalf of the Basin States, Director Buschatzke acknowledged the “trust and friendship we built as part of the process” during the signing ceremony in Santa Fe.
“That same spirit of cooperation and collaboration served us well in the negotiations that led to Minute 319 and now in Minute 323.”
Throughout much of the long negotiations, which straddled two U.S. presidential administrations, the Treaty’s update was known as “Minute 32x.” The execution and implementation of Minute 32x required a series of domestic agreements among the U.S., the IBWC, Reclamation, the Basin States, and U.S. water users.
Nowhere in the U.S. were those negotiations more challenging than in Arizona, which – unique among the Basin States – required Director Buschatzke to seek the approval of the Arizona Legislature before he could agree to “forbear” portions of the State’s Colorado River allotment.
The agreement allows Arizona water users to join users in California and Nevada in benefitting from the intentionally created surpluses generating from the water-savings projects the states fund in Mexico.
On March 2, 2017, Governor Ducey signed House Joint Resolution 2002, authorizing the director of Water Resources to execute the forbearance agreement on the assumption it met certain conditions and that the final form of Minute 32x – now, Minute 323 – would not harm Arizona water users.
In a letter to Arizona legislative leaders, the Director noted the establishment of a Binational Desalination Work Group, which will investigate desalination opportunities in the Sea of Cortez.
Minute 323 creates opportunities to augment Arizona water supplies, including a binational desalination plant near the Sea of Cortez.
“As you are aware,” wrote Buschatzke, “a binational desalination facility in the Sea of Cortez could be a critical component in Arizona’s long-term future water supplies.”
The following statement is from Ted Kowalski, director of the Colorado River initiative at the Walton Family Foundation, in support of the U.S.-Mexico Colorado River agreement announced today:
“This agreement is a home run for the long-term health of the Colorado River basin, the security of water for the future and the river environment in the United States and Mexico. The agreement also includes important incentives that encourage lower basin states to complete a drought contingency plan.”
The Walton Family Foundation joined several other foundations in releasing a letter today pledging support for the implementation of the agreement. Ted Kowalski:
“The philanthropic and nonprofit communities are eager to do their share to make sure the agreement is implemented and successful.”
The agreement to be signed Wednesday calls for the U.S. to invest $31.5 million in conservation improvements in Mexico’s water infrastructure to reduce losses to leaks and other problems, according to officials of U.S. water districts who have seen summaries of the agreement.
The water that the improvements save would be shared by users in both nations and by environmental restoration projects
The deal also calls on Mexico to develop specific plans for reducing consumption if the river runs too low to supply everyone’s needs, said Bill Hasencamp of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to about 19 million people in and around Los Angeles.
Major river consumers in the U.S. would be required to agree on their own shortage plan before Mexico produces one, he said.
The deal will extend a previous agreement that both countries would share the burden of water supply cutbacks if the river runs low, Hasencamp said.
The International Boundary and Water Commission, which has members from both countries and oversees U.S.-Mexico treaties on borders and rivers, declined to release a copy of the agreement before Wednesday’s signing ceremony in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Officials with the Mexican foreign ministry said in an email Tuesday they had no immediate comment, but U.S. officials who have been briefed on the details said the deal will help both sides.
“It’s good news for both nations, for water users in the U.S. and Mexico,” said Chuck Collum of the Central Arizona Project, another Colorado River user that will help fund the infrastructure improvements in Mexico.
The agreement provides more certainty in how the two countries will deal with the risk of a shortage and recognizes the danger the river faces, he said.
“It’s an acknowledgement that the U.S. and Mexico both share risk due to a hotter and drier future,” Collum said.
Sitting in an overcrowded hotel ballroom in Santa Fe, New Mexico, late yesterday afternoon, I was privileged to see that happen. In the midst of bellicose rhetoric about border walls and NAFTA trade battles, of “rapists” and “bad hombres”, representatives of the two nations’ border and water management community signed the final paperwork for the entry into force of a sweeping new Colorado River agreement.
The deal extends the core terms of “Minute 319”, a landmark agreement between the U.S. and Mexico that enabled a rich new suite of collaborative measures to managing the shared river – Mexican storage of water in U.S. reservoirs, shared surpluses and shortages, opportunities for U.S. water agencies to collaborate with their Mexican counterparts on conservation measures and a shared effort to restore water to the Colorado River Delta environment.
Two years of work by Obama administration folks and their Mexican counterparts had led to an near-agreement they came to call “Minute 32x” because of the quirks of the numbering system, but it didn’t quite get over the finish line before the change of administrations.
Yesterday, despite the fears of many (including myself), we saw the agreement survive, as Petersen-Perlman put it, “conflict … being waged over other issues.” Here was the Trump administration’s new Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, standing at the podium before an international audience praising his predecessor, Obama administration Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor, who stood quietly leaning against the back wall.
Connor and Estevan López, his Commissioner of Reclamation during the final years of the Obama administration, stood together. They two of them had led a determined push in the months after the election to try to get the deal done before the new administration took office, amid fears that a souring U.S.-Mexico relationship might make a Colorado River agreement impossible.
Eric Kuhn prepared for his final Colorado River District Seminar, “Points of No Return,” by riding his bike east to west across the Colorado National Monument the day before. He has announced his retirement from the district and I’m sure he’ll make good use of the time on his road bike, mountain bike, and kayak. He undoubtedly has outdoor interests that I don’t know about. He will be missed by those of us that have learned to listen to his wise counsel about the hardest working river in the world, the Colorado River.
He assured folks in the room, on Twitter and live on Facebook that the seminar was not his last, just his last as the GM of the district he worked at for 34 years. In his early retirement he is authoring a book on Colorado River hydrology that he hopes will “de-nerdify” the subject and appeal to a wide audience. The water nerds in the room all hoped to snag a copy as soon as is it avaiable.
He explained the politics and history of the River. “100 years ago the Colorado River was a beast,” he said, adding, “and we were in a wet time but already seeing shortages.” The beast would unleash huge floods in the Lower Basin, submerging towns and farms and destroying headworks and other facilities. Late in the irrigation season the river often failed to deliver water to finish crops.
Coloradans, led by Delph Carpenter, realized the danger to development of water in Colorado if prior appropriation prevailed on the Colorado River. The Lower Basin states of Arizona and California were first in time and the Upper Basin states were at risk of not being able to develop the farms, cities, and industry at a fast enough pace. The result was the Colorado River Compact which allocated water equally to the Upper Basin and Lower Basin based on the hydrology at Lee Ferry.
The Lower Basin needed storage to manage the river and the Upper Basin needed time. Boulder (now Hoover) Dam, and Lake Mead would fulfill the need for flood control, hydropower, and late-season irrigation water. Lake Powell was slated to store the Upper Basin water for downstream deliveries.
A hundred years later:
During his talk Eric stated that the West Slope, “Should not support and more transmountain diversions,” because that would put, “plans at risk.”
While not being a “not one more drop” line in the sand it still is a pretty strong statement. Kuhn cited protection of West Slope agriculture, the power pool at Lake Powell, and the Upper Basin delivery requirements under the “Law of the River,” the recreation industry, water quality, and the environment, as reasons.
“River governance must be as flexible to meet a wide range of future possibilities”, he said.
He believes that we need to reduce consumptive use on the river. He added that, the Lower Basin will have to make the lion’s share and they are doing that. Then he backed it up with the numbers:
Mr. Kuhn said that, “If we had a 1950s drought we would probably drain Lake Powell.”
Eric was preceded on the program Bill Hasencamp from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He said that 1 in 17 Americans get their water from the district (and their members), 19 million folks all told.
“I am from the Lower Basin and we’re about as different as can be,” he said,
Metropolitan’s water supplies come from the Colorado River, Northern California, and locally through conservation and reuse:
California has an active water market, he said, but there is great variability in price:
Demand for water is low this year due to huge winter snowpack:
“The Salton Sea will a dramatic effect on how water is managed going forward,” said Hasencamp. The water body, formed when the Colorado River destroyed an irrigation headworks during construction and has become important habitat for birds displaced by San Diego’s growth. Now it is drying up due to the lack of irrigation return flows and has become a health hazard for residents nearby.
Hasencamp stressed the importance of solving California’s Bay Delta problem. The proposed project will cost $17 billion and firm up the water supply from Northern California:
Hasencamp closed by quoting Abraham Lincoln, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”
Dave Kanzer from the Colorado River District moderated a panel about irrigation efficiency. The goal is to avoid unexpected consequences such as increased salinity or less water in the streams due to lower return flows.
Panel member Bill Trampe said that society has to tell irrigators what is required. The return flows from irrigation provide habitat for wildlife and after a 150 years or so that habitat is part of the fabric of the watershed. Absent direction from society ranchers and farmers will go where the money is because the business is very tough.
There was a long session about challenges and successes in Grand County with Lurline Curran, Paul Bruchez, and Mely Whiting. The county at the headwaters of the Colorado River sees 60% of its water exported to the East Slope by Denver Water and Northern Water. The two water agencies are working on projects to firm up supplies and the result could be that more headwaters flows could move east.
One project will rebuild the channel of the Fraser River to better fit the lower flows to keep river temperatures colder. Rocks are being placed to create pools for trout.
Another project, in concert with Northern’s Windy Gap Firming project will create a new natural channel around the reservoir to take it off-channel. The hope is that there will be greater scouring of the Colorado River below the reservoir to support stonefly populations that have been severely impacted.
At lunch Jack Schmidt explained his research into the Glen Canyon Institute’s proposal to drain Lake Powell to dead pool and store the water in Lake Mead. He said that their numbers with respect to evaporation and seepage may not be supported by the studies he has found. He confirmed that under a changed hydrology due to climate change that the option of re-drilling the original bypass tunnels around Glen Canyon Dam to completely drain Lake Powell might work to restore the Grand Canyon.
Afternoon sessions included a panel with Heather Hansman and Eric Kuhn with their thoughts on telling water stories and concluded with a panel of members of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and its new Director, Becky Mitchell.
The Colorado River District staff knocked it out of the park again this year. Thanks again.
Take a trip through the Tweets from the conference. The hash tag was #CRDseminar. Be sure to click on the “Latest” button at the top of the page, scroll down to the bottom and read upward from oldest to newest Tweets.
Here’s an in-depth report about decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam from Krista Langlois writing for The High Country News. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
For wilderness lovers, the 710-foot-tall concrete wall stuck out of the Colorado River like a middle finger — an insult that helped ignite the modern environmental movement. In 1981, the radical group Earth First! faked a “crack” on the dam by unfurling a 300-foot-long black banner down the structure’s front. The Sierra Club’s first executive director, David Brower, considered the dam’s construction a personal failure and spent the rest of his life advocating for its removal. And in his iconic novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, author Edward Abbey imagined a group of friends secretly plotting to blow up the dam and free the Colorado River.
In real life, though, Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell made it possible for millions of people to live and grow food in the arid Southwest. Together, the dam and the reservoir store precious snowmelt for year-round use, help generate electricity for 5.8 million homes, and enable states from the Upper Colorado River Basin to fulfill their legal obligation to deliver water to downstream states. Last year, the federal government underscored its support for the dam by finalizing a plan that will guide management for the next two decades.
Even so, an unprecedented interest in dam removals and the specter of climate change have created fresh hope for those who want to see the drowned canyon resurrected. From 1990 to 2010, the population of the American Southwest grew by 37 percent, even as the amount of water flowing into the Colorado River system shrank amid a historic drought. More people using fewer resources means that neither Lake Powell nor Lake Mead, the downstream reservoir created by Hoover Dam, have been full since 1999. And climate change promises to squeeze the water supply even further, with future droughts expected to bring even hotter and drier conditions.
Meanwhile, Lake Powell may be squandering the very resource it was designed to protect. Every day, water slowly seeps into the soft, porous sandstone beneath the reservoir and evaporates off its surface into the desert air. When more water flowed in the system, this hardly mattered. But in an era where “every drop counts,” says Eric Balken, executive director of the nonprofit Glen Canyon Institute, it calls for a drastic re-evaluation of the Colorado River’s plumbing. “The Colorado River can no longer sustain two huge reservoirs,” Balken says. “There isn’t enough water.”
That’s one reason the Glen Canyon Institute is pushing an audacious proposal called “Fill Mead First,” which calls for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to drain Lake Powell and send the water downstream to Lake Mead. In theory, combining two reservoirs into one would shrink their surface area, reducing the amount of water that’s lost to evaporation. It would also mitigate seepage, since Lake Mead is surrounded by hard volcanic rock rather than sandstone. The Colorado River would run freely through Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon, but Glen Canyon Dam would stay in place to store water if cooler, wetter conditions return — a compromise of sorts.
Not long ago, the idea of breaching Glen Canyon Dam was laughably unrealistic. Since 1999, though, more than 850 dams have been removed from U.S. rivers, and ecological restorations that once seemed pie-in-the-sky are looking increasingly probable. There’s just one problem: The science behind Fill Mead First is as muddy as the Colorado River itself.
Glen Canyon Dam. Image courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.
Cavitation at the Glen Canyon Dam via Flow Science.
The generator building of Glen Canyon hydro power plant in Arizona via Wikimedia.
How much electricity the turbines in the bowels of Glen Canyon Dam can generate depends upon how much water is delivered from the Wind River Range of Wyoming and the high mountains of Colorado into Lake Powell. Photo/Bureau of Reclamation.
The Colorado River wends its way through southern Utah and, at Glen Canyon, is impounded into Lake Powell. Photo/Allen Best
Glen Canyon Dam photo credit Greg Hobbs.
Glen Canyon Dam releases. Photo via Twitter and Reclamation
A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam — Photo USBR
Glen Canyon Dam June 2013 — Photo / Brad Udall
November 2012 High Flow Experiment via Protect the Flows
Glen Canyon Dam discharge via Tom Smart
Glen Canyon Dam back in the day when the reservoir was nearly full
Glen Canyon Dabm Construction
Glen Canyon Dam Construction
Glen Canyon Dam construction circa. 1961 via @USBR.
PINEDALE, WYO. – When Freddie Botur, 45, whose ranch spans 72,000 acres outside of Pinedale, Wyoming, first heard about a program that was paying ranchers to let water run down the river instead of irrigating with it, he was skeptical. But Nick Walrath, a project coordinator for Trout Unlimited, told him he’d receive about $200 for every acre-foot of water saved by not watering hay on his Cottonwood Ranch.
For Botur, it would mean over $240,000 for fallowing just over 1,700 acres of hayfields for the latter half of the summer of 2015, letting 1,202 acre-feet of water run past his headgate on Cottonwood and Muddy Creeks, tributaries of the Green River, instead of to his fields.
“Oh my God,” he thought, “this is insane.”
Botur, talkative and athletic, was wearing mirrored sunglasses and a cowboy hat when we met in June outside a cluster of old homestead buildings on the family ranch that he operates at the foot of the lofty peaks of the Wyoming Range. For Wyoming ranchers, he explained, the kind of money he received for not growing hay represented as much as a third of their annual revenue.
The money-for-water program that Botur signed up for was a pilot program, launched in 2014 by the four largest municipal water providers in the Colorado River basin along with the Bureau of Reclamation. The goal: See how complicated it would be to pay ranchers to use less water on their fields and instead let the water flow down the Green, Colorado, and San Juan rivers to Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two biggest water storage buckets in the Colorado River system.
The result: After three years, the initiative, known as the “System Conservation Pilot Program,” proved popular with skeptical ranchers like Botur, but water officials called a halt to the program after this year until they work out some big challenges. Their task will not be easy.
But as climate change alters the hydrology of the Colorado River Basin, water planners are searching for ways to adapt a system of century-old water laws to a new reality. If they’re successful, a revamped “system conservation program” could be one way to reshape water management for a hotter, drier West.
The year 2014 marked a new level of urgency for water managers along the Colorado River. In July, Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, dipped to its lowest level since it was filled in 1937. Upstream, Lake Powell was also in bad shape.
Since 2000, a long-term drought had gripped much of the Colorado River Basin and the storage pool of both reservoirs had shrunk to less than half their capacity. For the first time, federal authorities decreased the amount of water that flows into Lake Mead from Lake Powell. And officials from the Bureau of Reclamation said there was a 50-50 chance that by 2015 Lake Mead’s water will be rationed to states downstream.
That, too, had never happened before.
Most alarming, however, were the climate models suggesting that the drought was a harbinger of a future marked by rising temperatures — a future in which city water providers could not depend on what’s left in the Colorado River to meet demands.
For water officials in the Upper Colorado Basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico — the ongoing drought posed an additional threat. If they failed to deliver the mandatory volume of water from Lake Powell to Lake Mead, as required by the law, the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada, and California could make a “compact call” for their water, forcing the upper basin to stop diverting post-1922 water rights from the Colorado River.
“The cutbacks would go very deep,” says Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
In Colorado, for instance, the transmountain diversions that pipe water from the western side of the Rockies to the drier eastern side could be limited or stopped altogether. If that happened, Front Range cities —where more than 4 million people live —could lose up to 50 percent of their water supply.
And yet, water officials had barely discussed how such a scenario might be avoided.
If both Lake Mead and Lake Powell dropped significantly and Upper Basin states faced a compact call on the river, officials had few options to keep it at bay, said James Eklund, the former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who is now an attorney with Squire Patton Boggs in Denver. As the drought worsened, officials came to an uncomfortable conclusion, said Eklund: “If it gets really bad, we had no plan.”
The beginning of a crisis
When the first inkling of future water shortages emerged during the 2002 drought, Eklund, who serves on the Upper Colorado River Commission, and other water planners in the Upper Basin, asked the Bureau of Reclamation to model the reservoir levels in Mead and Powell using drier hydrology. The results confirmed what many already knew: They needed to plan for a lot less water in the Colorado River.
A few ideas emerged.
They could release water from Upper Basin reservoirs to keep Mead and Powell full. They could keep cloud seeding, which may help a bit. And they could keep removing the tamarisk from the banks of the Colorado and Green rivers, and that also may help a little. Still, Eklund, said, it felt like they were “just nibbling” at the problem.
Eklund, a fifth-generation Coloradan whose parents operate a ranch near Grand Junction, grew worried. If Lake Powell dropped to so-called “dead pool” levels, the turbines that generate electricity through the Hoover Dam would stop spinning. Without that power, millions of people across the Southwest would see their electric bills skyrocket and the hydro revenue that now pays for environmental programs along the Colorado River like salinity control and fish recovery programs would disappear.
In the Lower Basin too, water managers were growing more and more alarmed at the severity of the drought. The year 2002 showed them how fast reservoirs could shrink, said John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which delivers water to Las Vegas and its surrounding urban areas. “That was the wakeup call,” he said.
Using the water
Both cities and ranchers in the seven states served by the Colorado River have grown increasingly dependent on the river over the last century, even as the amount of water in the system is falling. That scarcity has created a complex, often fraught relationship between municipal water providers and irrigators, with cities often buying ranches for their water rights, a practice known as “buy and dry.” They do so from willing sellers, but the remaining ranchers don’t see a benefit and the permanent removal of water from land in a community can bring unwanted change.
A similarly tense relationship exists between officials in the Lower Basin and ranchers in the Upper Basin. Fears of Southern California or Las Vegas taking someone’s water are culturally ingrained in ranching communities in Colorado and Wyoming. And in Colorado, a longstanding feud exists between the rural western side of the Rocky Mountains, which has most of the state’s water, and the Front Range, where the majority of the people live.
But the severity of the ongoing dry spell has helped drive a new spirit of collaboration among the Colorado River’s competing factions. Over the years, water officials, environmentalists, and irrigators began meeting in conferences, on river trips, in hotel bars and coffee shops, choosing negotiation and trust over potential court battles — in the hopes of avoiding a potential “compact call.”
Seeding an idea
One such meeting occurred over a dinner that Eklund hosted for water managers from the basin states and officials from the Bureau of Reclamation and the Interior Department at Denver’s posh Palace Arms restaurant. On the agenda: negotiating Minute 319, a bi-national water-sharing agreement with Mexico, and ways to coordinate drought contingency plans among the upper and lower basin.
“It was one of those key moments where we could have gone off and done our own thing,” Eklund said. “But there was so much more that we could get out of it if we did things together.”
In the Lower Basin, cities like Las Vegas had invested millions in water-efficiency efforts like paying homeowners to get rid of their lawns, imposing strict water restrictions on golf courses, and reusing almost all wastewater. But Lake Mead continued to shrink and Entsminger, whose Las Vegas service area derives 90 percent of its drinking water from the reservoir, grew increasingly worried.
San Diego and Los Angeles had been paying farmers in the Palo Verde and Imperial valleys to lease their water on a temporary basis for years – a program that helped meet urban needs without drying up farms. If that strategy could work for California, Entsminger thought, it could also work for other parts of the Colorado River Basin.
The seeds of that idea emerged one day in 2013 during a brainstorming session in Hermosa Beach, California, with Jeffrey Kightlinger, the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Chuck Cullom, manager of Colorado River programs for the Central Arizona Project, and Jim Lochhead, the CEO of Denver Water. Together, they came up with what would become the System Conservation Pilot Program, which they hoped would strike a balance between their need to avoid a catastrophic water shortage and farmers’ reticence toward selling off their water rights.
Entsminger and the other municipal water managers brought the idea to officials from the Upper Basin states along with the Bureau of Reclamation. In total, they pooled a $15 million fund to compensate people throughout the Colorado River basin for using less water. The program targeted ranchers and farmers — who own the vast majority of water rights on the river — but municipalities could apply too.
It would be temporary and it would be voluntary — and every gallon of water saved would go not to any one state or city, but directly back to the river itself. “No one had done that before,” recalls Entsminger, “you’re investing money and no one’s name is on it.”
A grand experiment
The pilot program worked by soliciting proposals from individuals who volunteered to leave a portion of their water rights unused by letting the water run past their headgates and down their local section of river toward Lake Powell.
Applicants submitted a proposal describing their intended conservation activities, which were then reviewed by program administrators to ensure the proposals would actually leave more water in the Colorado River system.
For instance, low priority water rights — those dated after 1922 — were unlikely to yield much benefit since during dry years since junior water users must stop diverting to allow those with senior water rights their full claim amount.
In total, the four municipal water providers contributed $8 million to fund the program, with an additional $3 million from the Bureau of Reclamation. The fund was spread among projects in all seven Colorado River basin states and when the third year finishes up this fall, according to Michelle Garrison, who managed the program contracts for the Upper Colorado River Commission, it will have left an expected 21,590 acre-feet in the Upper Basin (and almost 98,000 acre-feet in the Lower Basin).
True, it is just a drop in the bucket for Lake Powell, which stores water from the Upper Basin of the Colorado River and had 15,020,378 acre-feet in it as of August 27, but it was the principle, and the experience, behind the System Conservation Program, that may prove most important.
“Nobody really knew how it would go,” said Cory Toye, the Wyoming water project director for Trout Unlimited, about the pilot program.
Would farmers and ranchers in the Upper Colorado River basin even agree to participate? For many of them, wary of the legacy of “water grabs” by big cities, accepting money from Las Vegas or Denver would be a form of betrayal to their communities and their culture.
Among Dennis Schroeder’s friends in the Pinedale, Wyo., ranching community there were fears that the program was actually a secret plot to take away ranchers’ water rights. And when Schroeder, who ranches on 355 acres of high desert, decided to participate, he heard from a few of them – fear-mongering mostly, he said, recalling one rancher’s warning: “Once you do that you’ll never get it back.”
Yet Schroeder understood there was a trade-off in participating — turning off his irrigation water early meant he lost out on some hay production — but when he did the math, the deal offered by the pilot program made sense to him. He participated for the first two years, receiving almost $15,000 each year for turning off his irrigation water in mid-July on 81 acres of land, letting 74 acre-feet of water remain in Pine Creek, a tributary of the Green River, which flows into the Colorado.
Entsminger knew they would have to tread carefully, that convincing Western ranchers and farmers that Las Vegas was “here to help” would not be easy. The program architects agreed that it would not look good if Lower Basin water managers were seen as paying for Upper Basin water, so the two basins used the funding separately.
Money from Denver Water and the Bureau of Reclamation would only fund projects in the Upper Basin while funding from the other municipalities along with the Bureau was reserved for projects in the Lower Basin.
“We were all sensitive,” Eklund said. “We didn’t want anyone to be able to point to money from Vegas or Phoenix going to fallow fields in the Upper Basin.”
To help navigate those cultural sensitivities Eklund and the other program architects also relied on partnerships with Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy. Their staff members would be the messengers, reaching out to irrigation districts and individual farmers with whom they had already worked hard to establish good working relationships.
For Jackson Ramsay, 25, a fifth-generation rancher from Rock Springs, Wyo., such a relationship with Trout Unlimited proved critical to his eventual support for the pilot program. When Trout Unlimited’s Walrath told Ramsay and his two brothers about the program, their first thought was, “What’s the catch?”
“We were kind of skeptical just because there are so many crazy things happening with government programs,” he told me one afternoon in June at a Starbucks in Rock Springs, before mentioning a rancher he knew who got in trouble with the Environmental Protection Agency for building a pond on his property.
Rock Springs is a resource town, surrounded by a honeycomb of old coalmines, the world’s biggest reserve of sodium carbonate, and the huge Jonah gas field. Most locals, said Ramsay, believe that land should be used for multiple purposes and are wary of environmental regulations that might hinder agriculture or extractive industries.
“We like coal, we like gas, we like oil, and we like ag,” Ramsay said. Green groups, he added, not so much.
Jackson and his brothers first met Walrath seven years ago.
“When Nick told us who he worked for,” Ramsay recalled, “we were kind of like, ‘Trout Unlimited — that sounds a lot like ‘Sierra Club.’ What do you guys want?’”
But after Walrath offered to replace a headgate that had washed out during a flood, making it better for fish – a project they could not afford on their own – the Ramsay brothers came around to working with a “green group.” Later, Trout Unlimited dug a pipeline to their irrigation ditch to protect it from future floods and the relationship was sealed.
When Walrath told them about the System Conservation Program, the Ramsays did some research and decided to apply because it made good financial sense. Ultimately, they didn’t qualify for the pilot program because their fields had not been in production for long enough, but Ramsay told me that they would if the opportunity to participate arose again.
As the pilot program matured, ranchers and farmers saw a unique opportunity: the ability to diversify their income by marketing their water rights in a way that hasn’t been available before.
The first year it ran, in 2015, the pilot program saw 15 applications. The second year, there were 32, and by last year, for the 2017 irrigation season, there were 47 applications.
“The third year we were shocked by the number of applicants,” said Garrison.
The numbers showed that with the right incentives, ranchers and farmers were much more receptive to helping cities avert a water crisis than any of the program architects had thought.
For hay and crops, the going rate was around $200 to $250 per acre-foot mostly for split-season irrigation projects — irrigating only at certain times, or stopping altogether on a certain date.
In Colorado, some participants used the program as an opportunity to transition into organic farming, which requires a three-year hiatus from pesticide spraying, while others fallowed certain fields for an entire season.
Near the town of Olathe, between Delta and Montrose, Colo., David Harold farms 700 acres of hay, sweet corn, and other vegetables.
He learned about the pilot program from a farmer-led coalition called No Chico Brush — named after the woody desert plants that covered vast swaths of land in southwestern Colorado before irrigated agriculture arrived in the late 1800s.
The group came together in 2013, a time when farmers in the Lower Gunnison River Basin worried that the ongoing drought might put an end to irrigated agriculture in their region and began researching water efficiency methods for farms.
“I had learned a lot about water rights and I didn’t feel threatened,” Harold said.
For Harold, the program made switching to drip irrigation much easier financially. In the past, he had struggled to improve his irrigation efficiency while growing crops at the same time, but participating in the pilot program provided him with some extra income.
Not everyone shared that perspective, however.
When other farmers learned Harold was signing up, several told him that they thought it was a terrible thing; that it was another form of “buy and dry”; that they would never do it. Others, he said — especially those farmers who were struggling financially — were more receptive.
Harold participated for one year, but with his new irrigation system in place, it did not make economic sense for him to continue participating. Still, he believes the pilot program was a worthwhile experiment in figuring out how to value water.
Water down the river
The program helped water managers figure out something essential as well, says Eklund. In an emergency drought scenario, when the usual conservation methods have been exhausted, when upstream reservoirs have been drained, and water levels in Lake Powell are still falling, what else can they do?
“How much water can we shove down the river in an emergency – how much money do we need to have ready to go?” Eklund said.
But to turn the pilot program into something permanent, Eklund and representatives from the other basin states have some big questions to resolve.
For instance, should farmers be compensated for the historical value of water used on their fields or the full potential usage guaranteed by their water right? What if someone like Harold had decided to plant alfalfa instead of sweet corn, which takes half as much water? How much should that contract be worth?
How can the program scale to include many participants? How can the contracting process for hundreds of irrigators be effectively managed, as it’s resource-intensive if done one-by-one as it was the past three years, when 56 contracts were produced and signed.
Water law, in some states, poses another hurdle. If farmers use less water than their allotment, they could risk losing some of their water rights.
In the future, Garrison hopes to see other states adopt legislation like Colorado has, where enrollment in approved conservation programs mean changes in water use cannot cause a farmer to lose a portion of his water right.
There is also the question of how to ensure the saved water actually, physically, gets to Lake Powell and Lake Mead, as downstream users are free to divert water in the river consistent with their water rights—whether it was destined for Lake Powell under the system conservation pilot program or not.
It’s what Garrison and others call the “shepherding problem.” In other words, how can the water be securely delivered, or shepherded, to Lake Powell without being diverted along the way?
But the hardest question to answer is also the one that proponents are reluctant to even ask: Is it even worth it?
As Gary Wockner, the director of the river conservation group Save the Colorado, pointed out, the same government agencies supporting the pilot program are also supporting new dam and diversion projects in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, that, if completed, would drain a further 250,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River system.
“If the fundamental premise is to stabilize Lake Powell, the last thing you’d want to do is permit new projects to take more water out of the river,” Wockner said. “You could spend millions leasing water from farmers and just barely break even.”
For Eklund, that apparent contradiction is part of a balancing act between the need to avoid future shortages on the Colorado River and protect Upper Basin states’ legal right to develop more water — if it’s available.
This year, heavy snows in the Rocky Mountains helped offset the years of persistent drought throughout the Colorado River Basin, but new research shows that rising temperatures will increase the frequency and severity of future droughts.
Just how much climate change will reduce the Colorado’s flow remains uncertain, but the pilot program at least made one thing clear: Ranchers and farmers are open, despite some negative social pressure, to take good money from metropolitan water providers and in exchange, leave some water in the river.
Last May, Botur left his ranch near Pinedale and traveled to Washington, D.C., along with several other ranchers who had participated in the pilot program, and Toye, from Trout Unlimited, to help secure more federal funding and support for the program’s future.
The trip was a whirlwind, with 12 meetings in two days, including one in Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s office where they were served Utah’s official state snack of Jell-O with marshmallows.
In two years, Botur had gone from skeptic to lobbyist. Faced with looming water shortages, it was better, he believed, to have a voluntary program that rewards people for doing what you want, instead of regulation forcing people to do something they don’t want.
Botur shut his water off even earlier than his contract required and other ranchers he knew did too. Water conservation was one value, but there were other values that the program supported and that Botur believed in — conservation of wildlife habitat, fisheries, and overall watershed health. Not to mention the value in avoiding future conflicts that will likely arise from population and climate conditions.
“It’s more than just money,” he said.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborated with High Country News on this story. HCN published the story on its website on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017.
A snowy winter in the Rocky Mountains helped Colorado River water users escape a shortage for the next year and likely for at least two more, federal water managers project, though a hot spring made the escape a narrow one.
The river’s reservoirs combined have gained 5 percent of their capacity in the last year, and now sit at 57 percent full. It means customers using Central Arizona Project water in the Phoenix and Tucson areas won’t lose deliveries next year and have just a 31 percent chance of losing some water in 2019 — a marked improvement from roughly even odds projected in recent years.
“We had a fairly decent runoff this year, which certainly helped us trend in the right direction,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Doug Hendrix said Tuesday.
Conservationists say the projections provide a nice reprieve but that the seven states on the river must use the time to plan and save more water and prevent future pain.
“I don’t think we really have time to wait for an official shortage declaration,” said Jeff Odefey, drinking-water-supply program director for the group American Rivers…
A 2007 agreement between Reclamation and the seven states said CAP customers, starting with farmers, would lose some of their river water in any year when the August projections show Lake Mead’s elevation dropping below 1,075 feet elevation on Jan. 1.
The lake would already be well below that level if not for conservation measures by the states and Mexico, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said in a statement Tuesday…
The government currently projects Lake Mead will end this year well above shortage level, at 1,083.46 feet. It was about 1,080 feet throughout on Tuesday, and should gain elevation as fall temperatures cool and reduce the demand for irrigation water, allowing more of the inflow to pool behind the dam…
The Green River, the biggest tributary to the Colorado, had a record snowpack in Wyoming last winter, Odefey said, while western Colorado was also above normal.
Warm weather then melted, evaporated and increased demand for water, reducing earlier predictions that Lake Mead would get a bigger boost…
The states and the federal government have already propped up the reservoir by paying for conservation and efficiency improvements with a goal of leaving water behind the dam instead of earmarking it for a particular use.
From 2012 through 2016, the states collectively saved 1.2 million acre-feet of water in the reservoir, said Jennifer Pitt, the National Audubon Society’s Colorado River program director.
That’s enough water to support a few million households, and it approaches the Central Arizona Project canal’s share of the river.
“It’s a great demonstration of the fact that water conservation can be done,” she said. “It makes me optimistic about the future.”
According to projections released Tuesday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the reservoir east of Las Vegas will have enough water in it on Jan. 1 to stave off a first-ever federal shortage declaration — and the mandatory water cuts for Nevada and Arizona that would come with it.
The lake is also on track to avoid a shortage in 2019, thanks to decreased demand downstream on the Colorado River and a larger-than-usual influx of water from Lake Powell upstream.
The extra water from Lake Powell is expected to raise Lake Mead’s surface by more than five feet by the end of the year.
The new federal projections come as officials in the United States and Mexico finish work on a new binational agreement aimed at stretching limited resources on the Colorado and keeping more water in Lake Mead.
Negotiators from the two countries, including representatives of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, have agreed on a range of water-sharing and water-saving initiatives, including voluntary cuts that Mexico could begin taking as soon as next year to prop up the overdrawn, drought-stricken river system.
The agreement also spells out how much Mexico would have to reduce its river use during a declared shortage and how much extra water the nation would get in the event of a surplus on the Colorado.
The new pact, known as Minute 323 to the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944, extends many of the provisions of an earlier treaty amendment approved in 2012 and set to expire at the end of this year. For example, Mexico will be able to keep storing some of its river allotment in Lake Mead, and U.S. water agencies will be able to continue to invest in infrastructure improvements south of the border in exchange for a portion of the saved water.
The water authority board is expected to vote Thursday to sign on to Minute 323 when the agreement is finalized next month.
“It’s a good deal for both countries,” Authority General Manager John Entsminger said.
The most important thing about the deal is the certainty it provides, Entsminger said. Water managers in both countries will now know what to expect should the river continue to shrink.
“It’s a big deal because the last thing you want is uncertainty when you get into a shortage condition,” he said.
The voluntary water cuts Mexico would take under the treaty deal hinge on a separate but related pact being negotiated by water officials in Nevada, Arizona and California.
The three states have agreed in principle on the so-called Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, under which Nevada, Arizona and, eventually, California would voluntarily leave some of their river water in Lake Mead when the surface of the reservoir falls to certain trigger points.
Entsminger said the multistate deal is on track for completion next year despite some public spats and lingering disagreements among water agencies in Arizona and California over how the voluntary cuts should be made in each state.
“I do believe it will happen,” he said…
The Las Vegas Valley relies on Lake Mead for 90 percent of its drinking water supply. The surface of the reservoir now sits at about 1,080 feet above sea level, roughly 130 feet lower than it was before the current drought began on the Colorado River in 2000…
Above-average flows in the Colorado River helped keep Lake Mead out of shortage for another year, but the real news is on the demand side.
Over the past year, Nevada, Arizona and California combined to use less than 7 million acre-feet of river water for the first time in 25 years.
Colby Pellegrino, Colorado River programs manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the decline in demand is proof that conservation efforts on the Colorado are making an impact.
The last time the three lower basin states combined to use less than 7 million acre-feet of river water was in 1992, when the region was home to roughly 7 million fewer people than it is now.
“We’ve successfully decoupled our economic prosperity from our water use,” Pellegrino said.